Review of ‘A Beautiful Obsession’ by Jimi Blake and Noel Kingsbury

I read so much about eco-friendly, low maintenance gardening these days, I yearn for garden writing with more depth, for writing about the more immersive kinds of experience a garden can offer, or about the striking, experimental gardens some creative designers are exploring. I look through garden book lists and find nine out of ten titles are one-dimensional … how to make a successful compost pile, how to make a thrilling long-season flower border, or a pollinator-friendly garden. I understand such works have a good and necessary purpose, but there’s far more to a garden than that.

Attempting to read these “how to” books, I sometimes wonder if my interest in gardening may not just dry up and blow away on the next breeze.

Then I come across a book like this, one that makes me think. A Beautiful Obsession is a startling new book about Jimi Blake’s garden, Hunting Brook, at the edge of the Wicklow Mountains in Ireland. Jimi is an endlessly energetic garden iconoclast, a man driven to try new combinations of plants, many extremely unusual, if not almost entirely unknown in Western horticulture. The book is a joint effort of Jimi, who tells his story and explains his driving passion, and Noel Kingsbury, the expert observer and interpreter.

Anyone reading this book is likely to find a few plants to lust after. I’ve picked two I’d like to try for myself. The New Zealand Pseudopanax crassifolius (tall plant above), with tall bare stems and a bunch of extremely narrow leaves at the top, making it an ideal “see-through” plant, and Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’, an airy plant, with brilliant orange, and long-flowering (sorry I don’t have a picture of it; you’ll need to buy the book). I intend to try to find these plants and give them a trial in my own garden. Photo ©Bernard van Giessen

Hunting Brook is an extraordinarily rare kind of garden that has come onto the garden scene with a splash. Seeking effects I find hard to characterize, Jimi combines hardy perennials with tropicals, desert cacti with flowery annuals. This is clearly a ‘plantsman’s garden’ but it’s far more than that. In Jimi’s seemingly endless striving for a distinctive richness of experience, he’s working with a maverick aesthetic vision.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say the book almost sparkles with Jimi’s enthusiasm and personality. It’s funky design and casual organization—part horticultural family album, part garden photo spread, part exotic plant catalogue—is an entertaining and thought-provoking read. You learn about Jimi’s history, how he grew from a teenager working in a nursery to a gardener with the largest plant collection in Ireland, about his obsessive searching for new plants, about his heartfelt mission to teach (he holds regular classes in the garden). Jimi’s exuberance and friendliness are well known to visitors to the garden and to followers of his very large presence on Instagram. In fact, you may want to try his Instagram feed (jimiblake_huntingtonbrookgardens) where he posts fascinating video tours of his garden almost every day.

Photo ©Richard Murphy

I first saw Jimi Blake’s garden on a dreary, wet day in September 2018. We’d planned our stay in Dublin, knowing it would probably be the only opportunity to see Hunting Brook. I’d written Jimi, hoping to meet him. Unfortunately, the only day we could get to the garden was a scheduled teaching day. We got to speak only briefly, and were mostly on our own, so I had no guide to the unusual plantings that met my eyes. And this was like no other garden I’d ever seen.

Jimi teaching a class on the day I visited Hunting Brook. Photo ©James Golden

I needed some help understanding what Hunting Brook is about, and in this new book, I finally got the inside story. Jimi is all about planting complexity, and seeking garden experiences rich and new.

According to Noel, “the planting style he has settled on for the open sunny areas … is perhaps best thought of as a two-stage year:  perennials and bulbs until July then a handover to mostly temporary later season plants with a strong undertone of foliage … His planting has evolved … and he now prefers a more complex and visually richer look, but one which is inevitably much more labour intensive, filling in around the early-season perennials with annuals, temporary summer planting (led by dahlias and salvias) and exotic foliage. It’s a planting style that involves a big May planting out session and a big October dig-up.”

So Hunting Brook is an experimental garden, subject to constant change, and a very labor-intensive one. Noel writes that Jimi is practicing a style quite similar to the Victorian practice of bedding out annuals and other plants from disparate habitats for seasonal display. This approach to planting is rare today and is practiced almost nowhere else, except for the constant change one sees at Great Dixter. So … is Jimi Blake a man out of step with the Zeitgeist, or is he one of the first to revive an old way of garden-making, but with a highly creative spin?

Photo ©Richard Murphy

Totally different from the gardens near the house is Jimi’s Valley garden. This is an immersive garden of steep slopes, astonishingly tall trees, and lush, hearty vegetation with a small, sparkling stream down the center.

The path down into the valley garden curves away behind the house. Photo ©Bernard van Giessen

To get to it you walk down the fairly steep side of a ravine behind the house into a forested valley much larger than the upper gardens. This is my favorite part of Hunting Brook, though certainly not the part it is best known for, largely because it is a long-term project, one that will take years to bring to fruition. I personally like this kind of habitat, and Jimi has created a place of strong atmosphere and emotional power, even if the final project completion (is a garden ever complete?) is a long way off.

Hunting Brook flows down the bottom of the valley. Photo ©Giacomo Guzzon

Jimi is constantly planting in this rather immense area, so you have to look closely to see what is going on. The final chapters of A Beautiful Obsession are devoted to the Valley garden and an extensive directory of some of Jimi’s favorite plants, organized by type.

Noel writes “what Jimi is doing here is quite rare … There is a tradition going back to the period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries of landowners planting rhododendrons and other exotica in woodland, but Jimi has used another range of plants entirely … Most of these are woodland-edge species which have never been used much in cultivation, and certainly not on such an ambitious scale.” Noel calls attention to Jimi’s special focus on “the Araliaceae:  Fatsia, Kalopanax, Metapanax, Pseudopanax, Schefflera. This planting of so many Araliaceae,” he continues, “is one of Jimi’s most important contributions to contemporary horticulture …”

Atmospheric wooden table and log seats in the valley (Phoro ©James Golden)

A long moss-laden wooden table with mossy log seats is a beautiful and imaginative set piece you encounter as you near the valley bottom. This is a kind of wonderland place. The bottom trail takes you from this spot through big, hefty plantings of lush, large-leaved plants, then up a stairway to the rim of the opposite side of the valley, where you enter a native meadow garden with a view of the Wicklow Mountains.

The valley pathway passes through characterful plantings of Rheum, Rodgersia, Astilboides, Darmera, and ferns. Photo ©Giacomo Guzzon

You can become immersed in the experience of walking along the valley floor, brushing against the oversized leaves of Rodgersias, Astilboides, Darmera, and many different ferns. For me, this is the part of the garden with the most powerful sense of place.

Foliage detail. Photo ©James Golden

I thoroughly enjoyed reading A Beautiful Obsession. The opening, with Jimi’s life story, how he got where he is today, is engaging and enjoyable, and a quick read. I couldn’t put it down. The book’s design is unusual, combining formal page layouts using lavish, full-bleed, color photographs of high quality, with complementary sections of “from life” photos resembling a photo album, and showing Jimi with family members and other people in his life. This unusual book captures Jimi Blake’s informal, restless, friendly spirit, shows us the person in the midst of his daily routine and, most importantly, introduces and explains his unique gardening style, and his high aspirations for the future of Hunting Brook.

A view of the Wicklow Mountains at the top of the valley. Photo ©James Golden

There’s much more to the story of Jimi Blake and his gardens. I think you’ll enjoy exploring his unique world in A Beautiful Obsession.

Jimi Blake in action. Photo ©Bernard van Giessen